Seaweed (macroalgae) refers to marine algae found in oceans and seas, exhibiting diverse physical and physiological characteristics while holding significant ecological importance. Seaweeds have wide-ranging applications in industries such as agriculture, cosmetics, food, pharmaceuticals, energy and packaging.

In India, there are approximately 844 reported seaweed species, broadly categorised into red, green, and brown algae. Out of this, less than 10 species have gained commercial success. Species like Kappaphycus alvarezii, Sargassum, Gracilaria edulis, Gracilaria dura, Ulva lactuca, etc. have been commercially recognised in India due to their availability and exploratory studies conducted on their applications. Each species serves a specific function based on its unique physicochemical composition. They are widely explored for the polysaccharides, polyphenols,  bioactive compounds, etc. that can be extracted from them.  According to FAO data for 2021, Asia contributes to 98% of the world’s seaweed production, with China ranking first (56.8%), followed by Indonesia (28.6%), and South Korea (5%). Despite sharing tropical waters with these leading producers and a coastline of over 7,500 km, India has not yet emerged as a major seaweed producer. 

To address this, policies such as the ‘Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana’ (PMMSY) have allocated an investment of Rs. 640 crores to revolutionise the seaweed sector. The PMMSY aims to increase seaweed production in India from current levels that are close to 25,000 metric tonnes to 11.2 lakh tonnes wet weight by FY 24-25. While the government promotes seaweed cultivation and allied industries through policies like the PMMSY, there is still a significant gap between current cultivation levels and the envisioned targets. 

A digital platform called ‘The Algae Store’ is being created with the support of Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) in collaboration with the US Consulate-General, Chennai, to provide better visibility, domestic and international market access, and other services for cultivators and buyers in the future. The Algae Store project seeks to become a one-stop solution for stakeholders in the seaweed sector, facilitating networking, buying and selling, and promoting the formalisation of this segment. 

During the development of this platform, stakeholders’ interactions were conducted at various stages of the seaweed value chain, including cultivators, researchers, industrial entrepreneurs, and journalists who are actively involved in building a strong ecosystem. Despite efforts from multiple stakeholders and having a long coastline, commercial cultivation of seaweed in India remains mainly restricted to Tamil Nadu, with some development happening in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Several geographical factors contribute to this limitation, such as the depth of the continental shelf, salinity, temperature, nutrient levels, tidal action, sunlight intensity, etc. 

India currently has a small community of around 70-120 seaweed farmers, and the number is slowly rising. Formal players are making efforts to organise the sector and bridge the gap between demand and supply sustainably. At the community level, women are heavily involved in cultivation practices. There is a significant need for innovation in cultivation techniques to diversify and scale up the growth of other types of seaweed.

Industries and academia believe that seaweed holds promise for its immense potential to produce bioethanol/biofuel. However, the supply of raw materials needed for certain applications, such as biofuel/ bioethanol production, is currently lacking. Some companies have aligned their long-term goals to innovate cultivation and produce biofuel that can replace fossil-based alternatives for energy sources. Seaweed extracts are widely used in agriculture as bio-stimulants and in the pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetics industries, where various grades of hydrocolloids extracted from seaweed are utilised for multiple applications. A new realm of innovation is being explored globally, where seaweed is used to make environmentally-safe packaging materials. In the coming years, it is hoped that, through global innovations, diverse species of seaweed will be recognised and cultivated on a larger scale.

To know more about the platform, or to be a part of it, feel free to reach out to [email protected] 

(This article is first published on Hindu Business Line)

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

Sakshi Gore
+ posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *